They don’t teach you how to make Doritos at culinary school. They also don’t teach you how to become a YouTube personality. Since she finished her studies at École Grégoire Ferrandi in Paris, Claire Saffitz, host of Bon Appétit’s “Gourmet Makes” video series, has somehow found herself doing both.
“Gourmet Makes,” which has accrued a cult following online, has a simple premise: A pastry chef spends a few days trying to replicate the snacks you could easily find at a convenience store. Saffitz has labored over handmade imitations of Twinkies, Starburst, and most recently, Pocky. She’s tried to re-create the lab-engineered qualities of junk food: the tacky caramel in the middle of a Twix, the springy bite of instant noodles, and the inexplicable, addictive quality of Doritos.
As she toils over a batch of marshmallow Peeps or Lucky Charms, Saffitz gets words of encouragement and pitying laughs from her colleagues in the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen, who are often at work on their own recipes. “Gourmet Makes” is a cooking show with outlandish scientific stunts and the collegial antics of a workplace comedy, and Saffitz, a self-described introvert, is its reluctant protagonist.
“I never pictured myself in front of a camera,” said Saffitz, who joined Bon Appétit as a freelance recipe tester and later, an editor. “At first, it was quite stressful.”
In some way, though, the stress is one of the best parts of the series. It’s satisfying to see Saffitz emerge victorious at the end of an episode, but the real pleasure of “Gourmet Makes” is watching her — a Harvard-educated perfectionist with a baker’s eye for detail — struggle through many failed attempts.
“One thing I hear a lot is that people feel less stressed out after they watch ‘Gourmet Makes,’ ” she said. “There’s a transference of their stress onto me.”
Every episode is a reminder that these mass-produced foods are not meant to be made by human hands. The chick-shaped Peeps tragically lose their beaks. The homemade Pop Rocks lack the tongue-burning sensation of the original. Saffitz grumbles and sighs and occasionally threatens to quit, which is endearing because everyone knows she won’t.
“The funny thing about Claire’s videos is that at this point they’re just kind of trolling her with the requests,” said Megan McGowan, a fan who created a Facebook group for discussing Bon Appétit Test Kitchen videos. “They’re really leaning into her messing up, and she’s such a good sport about it.”
Since the inaugural episode, Saffitz has gotten more comfortable cooking — and messing up — in front of the camera, but she’s still acclimating to all of the attention the series has brought her. Each “Gourmet Makes” video garners millions of views. Bon Appétit recently started selling T-shirts decorated with an illustration of Saffitz’s hair, which is long and dark with distinctive gray streaks. Searching the phrase “I would die for Claire Saffitz” on Twitter yields a surprising number of results.
Saffitz has been asked to reveal her skincare routine on it-girl cosmetics blog Into the Gloss, and she published a detailed food diary for New York Magazine’s “Grub Street Diet” series. “I love the Grub Street Diet. I am particularly fascinated by what people eat; I think it says a lot about people,” Saffitz said. “But when those outlets came calling, I thought: I don’t know why people want to read this about me.”
“Gourmet Makes” fans draw fan art, make memes, and occasionally stop Saffitz on the street to profess their admiration. “I think she’s figuring out what to make of that,” said Jane Saffitz, Claire’s sister. “I don’t think she ever, ever was like, I want to be famous.”
Though few people will ever have to make Pop Rocks or Cheetos from scratch, many see themselves in Saffitz’s exasperated sighs and looks of existential despair. Her extraordinary cooking skills make for compelling videos, but fans have latched to Saffitz because she seems like an ordinary person they might meet in real life.
“It feels like you really get to know [the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen chefs] because their personalities shine through,” said Kamonmas Samutratanakul, an illustrator in Thailand who has published Claire Saffitz fan art under the name Kali Lee.
“She’s so charming on camera because she didn’t ask for this,” said Harris Mayer-Selinger, Saffitz’s boyfriend of five years. He can readily quote his favorite lines from his girlfriend’s videos, and even reads through the YouTube comments. (Yes, he’s seen the many comments that say, “Marry me, Claire.”) He added, “The fact that she doesn’t fit this is what makes it so universally appealing.”
The “Gourmet Makes” host’s ascent to Internet fame may have been a surprise, but it was certainly a stroke of luck in a profession that has been transformed by social media.
“I never had the opportunity to be Internet famous when I was in a similar position at Martha Stewart [Living],” said Susan Spungen, a cookbook author and food stylist who has been a collaborator and mentor to Saffitz. “A brand used to be something for a big company. With the advent of social media, people are like, I need to have a brand!”
But the viral junk food replicas aren’t very representative of what Saffitz — or, really, any sane person — truly enjoys cooking. “Claire is a much more serious cook than ‘Gourmet Makes,’ ” said her mother, Sauci Saffitz.
The people close to Saffitz can easily point to the qualities that guide her through ambitious cooking projects. Jane Saffitz said the abilities that make her sister a great cook — patience, creativity, fine motor skills — are the same traits that made her excel at fly fishing during their childhood vacations.
Mayer-Selinger said he saw Saffitz’s readiness for a challenge as early as their first date. “I thought I was real cool,” he said, and brought Saffitz to the ice cream store where he was a manager for some after-hours dessert. They discovered that a freezer had malfunctioned and had to quickly move about 15 three-gallon containers of homemade ice cream, Mayer-Selinger said.
“But we got to eat ice cream at its best stage, which is when it’s a little bit melted,” he added.
These days, Saffitz still hosts “Gourmet Makes” and a new series called “Baking School,” but she’s also working on her first cookbook, which is slated for publication in fall 2020. While the thrill of “Gourmet Makes” is seeing a professional pastry chef get stumped by convenience store snacks, one of the goals of writing recipes for home cooks is to making people “feel like a better cook than they are,” in Saffitz’s words.
“The holy grail of recipe developing is the recipe that turns out so much more impressive than you would expect from the effort it took to produce,” Saffitz said. “Cooking is not effortless. To get a recipe that feels effortless is really hard.”
Marella Gayla can be reached at email@example.com.